My personal presidency: Michael D Higgins talks to Fintan O’Toole

The President discusses the poverty of his early life, his health, his future and the struggles of the Irish Republic

It is striking that, in the course of a wide-ranging conversation in his study at Áras an Uachtaráin, Michael D Higgins mentions just one precise date: August 15th, 1946. He says these numbers in what seems an entirely unselfconscious way, as if to him they are just there, always, in his head, always ready to come to the surface.

“I was five; my brother was four when – the 15th of August 1946 – my father falls back in bed very ill and we go out to Co Clare to be reared by a very kind uncle and aunt. It was supposed to be temporary, but it ended up more permanent.”

In the preface to his new book of presidential speeches, When Ideas Matter, he mentions that, during the centenary of the 1916 Rising, he has often found himself having to think again of his father, John, who fought in the IRA during the War of Independence and the Civil War, “his hard life, his illness and his death”. He does not say that, of course, his father’s hard life was also his own. Self-pity is not in his make-up.

But that make-up has a date stamp: August 15th, 1946. And in the grandeur of the Áras study, with its stuccoed ceiling and its shelves groaning with his beloved books and the light streaming in from the verdant lawn, you are reminded that Michael D Higgins is head of two very different states.


One of them is the successful modern European republic he is proud to embody: the previous day he received the new ambassadors of the UK, Chile, Sudan and Mexico and appointed new judges to the High Court and Court of Appeal.

And the other is a republic that never quite came into existence, that never really had a place for John Higgins and for so many others who ended up in county homes like his father or in exile like his sisters.

If John Higgins’s son does not seem quite like any other head of state it may be because he is unwilling and unable to forget what the state is not. There are large parts of him that can never be comfortably accommodated to officialdom, even while he occupies the office with an obvious and profound pleasure.

On his father and family
When I ask about the reference to his father at the beginning of the book it opens the seam of personal history that runs parallel to the history of the State: John Higgins and his brothers being active in the IRA in north Cork and east Clare, respectively; his father taking the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War while Uncle Peter, who took Michael in when he was five, served on the pro-Treaty side; the realities of poverty, snobbery and mass emigration.

Michael D Higgins can recall exactly the monetary cost of his father’s taking the wrong side in the Civil War and the difficulty of finding work as a former IRA internee: he had been earning £30 a year and £50 travelling expenses as a traveller for a merchant in Charleville. And then when he comes out he starts life all over again in Nolan’s shop in Newbridge at £50 a year live-in.”

He remembers the family moving from flat to flat after his father became ill and the strictures of social class that made his mother unwilling to seek local-authority housing. “We’ll have to wake up to carrying the consequences of class. For example, why did my mother give . . . Why did we not seek the local-authority housing options? Because it would have been a descent from the farming position to being in a cottage.”

He remembers, too, that his Uncle Peter’s prosperity declined as his health did, a reality he relates to the hardships endured in the War of Independence. “Both my uncle and my father, they were on the run a lot and had slept out and had very chronic chest conditions that they never really recovered from for most of the time that I knew them.”

One of Michael D’s most eloquent poems, The Betrayal, is about his own inability to shake off the guilt of persuading, in 1964, his broken-down father to go into the county home to die:

And when I had done it,
I cried, out on the road
hitching a lift to Galway
and away from the trouble
of your cantankerous old age
and rage too
at all that had in recent years
befallen you.

The poem, he says now, merely hints at the difficulties that sons and fathers have “in handling rage and anger and disappointment”.

Yet he also now remembers his father’s dexterity and ingenuity. “My father knew how to break twine with his hands, and he knew how to cut paper and wrap things. In times when we were very poor he would take . . . One of my sisters told me only a year ago that he would take out a dress on approbation in Limerick, and he would cut cloth and make one exactly the same, and he was able to use a sewing machine.

“I remember sitting and watching him cutting leather and putting soles on shoes but also stitching leather. And when he was in the camp in the Curragh he remembered taking coins and flattening them out and putting a hole in the middle and making a Claddagh ring which I had and which I’ve lost in my different migrations from one house to another.”

On his style of presidency
That lost Claddagh ring seems still to be a kind of unofficial seal of office for Michael D. It is a token of the things he does not pretend to have forgotten: the secret histories of rage and betrayal and displacement that he shares with the losers and the left behind. It shapes the way he thinks and talks about the State that emerged from the struggles and disappointments of the revolutionary generation.

He knows too much about the social realities of the Ireland that came into being to fall into bland praise for the egalitarian nature of the republican and nationalist traditions. “I have controversially suggested that it is not a case of we having fallen [away] from any egalitarian tradition. Nor is it the case that the egalitarian tradition is centrally relating to nationalism.

“I have suggested very explicitly that you need to shine the lamp very strongly to find the thin, flickering flame of egalitarianism within the nationalist tradition . . . wherefore if you were taking and working with the materials that are given to us it has to be built anew. So the case for, if you like, the safety, the superiority, the value of egalitarian thinking has in fact actually to be made. The case has to be made.”

And he is a President with a case to make. One of the rather startling things in his preface to When Ideas Matter is the frank acknowledgment that the speeches he has made as President are pretty much what he would have said anyway, and what he has been saying over five decades as a university teacher, social theorist, public intellectual and active politician. “In truth what I have written I would have sought to write irrespective of circumstances.”

It is easy to miss, in his benign public demeanour and in the public affection that surrounds him, the steeliness of this resolve. He has not conformed to the presidency. He has, rather, shaped the office to conform to his own distinctive personality, with its unique blend of high-concept intellectual fireworks and down-to-earth social skills, of an upbeat tone with a deep anger at injustice, of beaming goodwill towards all with implacable opposition to the orthodoxies of the market.

Before his inauguration, almost five years ago, in November 2011, he went to Glenstal Abbey to think about the tone he wanted to set for his presidency in his inaugural speech. He decided from the start that he was not going to remake himself for the role.

“And it is all in the inaugural speech, that I wasn’t going to be doing such an adjustment. I have a kind of ground rules for myself. I don’t speak about what is before the Dáil or Seanad. I don’t speak about the government’s legislative programme.

“But the themes with which legislation is dealing I feel perfectly free to do so, because I am directly elected as a president and therefore I am in contact with an awful lot of people. So therefore I kind of tried to grow that into the way [I speak], an acceptance of that.

“Of course, you will have letters saying, ‘Well, why is the President doing this,’ and, ‘Why is he doing that?’ But, no, it didn’t bother me at all. There were times when those people would say to me, they would have discussions on the radio or television, ‘Has he crossed the line?’ and ‘Has he stepped over the line?’ whatever this line is.

“So,” he says, laughing, “it hasn’t bothered me, and also I am not doing anything for to strike any personal effect at all. I have been around a long time, and I am always expressing something. That is part, I think, of the ageing process itself.”

On the decency of the people
It is clear that he has carved out for himself a freedom to speak that goes beyond what his predecessors enjoyed. "The way that these speeches came to be – what happens, I think, when a president is going out to do a major event, a speech is requested from him. This was the old system from the Department [of the Taoiseach]. It comes in in a draft, and then that would have been used more.

“But in my case I set out the thing, and there is a way I want to put these kind of things, and I am actually deeply committed to the idea that people can understand more than people say they can.”

This belief is central to his style and to his persistence with a high level of intellectual discourse. He holds to the view that abstract concepts are not beyond ordinary experience and that presidential speeches can therefore bring together complex ideas and everyday realities.

Far from being airy-fairy his highly intellectual approach has allowed him to take on the biggest global issues without being strident or inappropriately combative.

In the presidency, as in his previous career of political activism and social thinking, he is an implacable opponent of the market fundamentalism of the Chicago school of economics, an ideology that acquired the status of orthodoxy after the Thatcher-Reagan revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“One of the great attractive features of America, in a way, is its candour. They don’t hold back. And you have a view in the Chicago school about debating something like altruism. They say that altruism is best kept to your family and your loving relationships. After that let’s agree that self-interest is what’s keeping the whole economy going, so let’s keep the economy steady with aggressive self-interest, and let’s keep that bit of altruism that’s precious for just the people that are close to us. That’s one view.

“I look back on my time going as a student to England. I regard the National Health Service in Britain as one of the great achievements of humanity. I also think that those great big public-housing initiatives, that it was said that soldiers who come home from the war can’t be asked to live in hovels.

“People call it different things. They say, you know, these are the decencies and it’s not only about just being allowed to live . . . It isn’t only about being able to be alive. It’s about sufficiency.”

On the future of Europe
It is his commitment to these "decencies" that makes him both a passionate defender of the ideals behind the European Union and a strong critic of the direction it has taken.

“I’m very worried about the future of Europe. It is in fact ditching some of its better achievements. It’s losing some of its better thought because it isn’t willing to engage . . . I will offer a hypothesis: the best contribution to security in Europe is a socially cohesive Europe. Even if it doesn’t answer all the questions it’s a huge contribution.”

He is thus highly critical of mainstream European attitudes to the Greeks during their debt crisis. “I was appalled. I remember saying it to Giorgio Napolitano, the former president of Italy, in our conversations, how shocked I was at the way people were speaking about the Greek people. And he agreed with me.”

He is sceptical, too, of the remit of the European Central Bank. “I remember saying about the European Central Bank that there was no central bank in the history of central banks that had ever had any impact on unemployment or poverty while it had one instrument, keeping inflation below 2 per cent. And there is no inflation in Europe.”

He fears the consequences of a technocratic imposition of fiscal rules. “They’ve argued that matters are so complicated they can’t be left to citizens. You could end up almost at the European level with a kind of a fiscal council that removes all conscious decision-making from the people.”

And he rejects the implicit argument behind much of the recent austerity programme that every other European country should become more like Germany. “The 27 remaining states in the European Union can’t all be like Germany. It would actually be a contradiction if they were. Because in beggar-my-neighbour only one person can receive all the cards.”

Behind this critique is a belief that the threats to social cohesion feed the rise of a right-wing populism that threatens democracy. “Where people like I have to defend myself regularly is that none of us are illiterate and none of us are Luddites, and we all understand the appropriate benefits of econometrics and measurement.

“But the issue is, when should you measure, what can be measured, what instrument should you use and how far are you willing to push the reach of the market? It is a matter of fundamental democratic discourse as to how you answer these questions, and they’re lurking around behind everything.

“I actually say to some people, I ask them the question, ‘Do you really believe that you can deliver a response that is adequate to climate change or implement sustainable development from the existing construction of markets as they are?’ Obviously it can’t happen.

“If we have a position where one section of the society is going to lock itself away in private consumption and all the rest of it are to be left to the lifeboats, thrown out and so forth? You see, we have to recover the role of the accountable democratic state. The state is just important. And what that means is that some people are going to have to say that the excesses [to] which people were driven after 1989, we have to come back the road and take another direction.”

On Britain and Brexit
I wonder how he saw Brexit in this context and in the context of the huge improvement in Anglo-Irish relations that was evident, not least, in his own State visit to Britain in 2014. "I think that the reworked Anglo-Irish relationship and the mutual understandings are sufficiently strong. That is one. I think there are legal and constitutional issues that arise in relation to how the United Kingdom is going to adjust to its decision, which raises issues for it. It has issues in relation to crown territories in Gibraltar.

“There is no doubt at all that the Good Friday agreement takes precedence in international law over the opinion that is the Brexit decision. You have other positions in relation to devolution in Scotland. I have read all of that literature.

“But what is very important is there are opportunities in this too. That is that people may say that this new relationship is too important to be allowed to get into danger one way or another.

“And I think there is a problem that is a bigger one for the Irish foreign service, and that is that it can’t become absorbed in the detail of the response of people whose major decision it is – the United Kingdom government – and, for example, neglect the present position of the European Union in general.

“For example, there is a real issue as to what would happen after the Italian referendum, which has now been postponed from October to November. Italy is an enormous chunk of the European Union. There is the issue of . . . You have a real, real issue of what is needed in relation to a visionary invitation to a re-energised Europe. That is the challenge.

“It is important that the diplomatic effort not get bogged down. The impression that is coming across is that everything has changed within Europe itself. The French position is not the same as the German position. Some of the central European states have very, very different agendas in many cases.”

But he does not believe that, in the European response to Brexit, “you will have any great anxiety to accommodate a suggestion that one can have the benefits of access to an economic area without the freedoms of movement and so on. And this means being able to retain the principles of the treaty while at the same time accommodating a democratic decision of a member country.”

On his imperfections and vulnerabilities
Even in making these large statements Michael D's credibility comes not just from his academic erudition but also from being who he is: a man who believes in the power of the state because he has lived with the consequences of its failures.

Memories of emigration and of the sense of transience that attaches to the migrant condition are key themes in his speeches, but they are not rooted only in study. He also remembers with touching simplicity his own means of departure to England in search of educational opportunity.

“I borrowed £200. A man gives it to me in four 50s. And I go to England.” It is these experiences that make him comfortable with his own imperfection. In his public persona he does not strive to be some kind of impersonal representative of the State, above and beyond ordinary humanity.

The Irish people, he says, “have been very, very good to me. It is about really what I said about the decencies. I have one letter in there now which said that ‘the President is trying to do something decent’.

“But the other part of it is, I am making no attempt to hide my own vulnerability. The fullness of the citizenry isn’t in fact just all the people who vote regularly. It is the people in all their vulnerabilities. And it is very important to Irish people that they would often say, when people couldn’t intervene and do things to help people much, was to simply to have their position recognised.

“This is the position of the homeless person, the people I have spoken to on the corner of streets who would say to people they just wanted to be spoken to with dignity, you know?”

For himself, age has brought a tolerance for the inevitable imperfections of all political ideas and actions. As a veteran of the endless civil wars of the left he has come to think that people should be given credit for doing what they can do in circumstances where that is bound to be less than perfect.

He contrasts the desire to “take charge of the elements of a big vision and hammer it out rhetorically” with the need to “take the subtlety and negotiate its presence in imperfect circumstances”.

“I think the perfectionists and the absolutists really are wrecking their own heads as well as everyone else’s. I mean there is nothing as useless, for example in literature, as those people who start writing a novel from the idea of the assumed perfect lifestyle or the assumed perfect sexual relationship or the presumed loving relationship.”

Making the best of these contradictions is what he hopes young politicians will aspire to. “They are very foolish if they are just seduced into thinking in terms of where their career is going. For what? We live, we die, in the stretch that you have.”

On his health and his future
Whether his own public career will finish with his first term of office, in 2018, is not something he is prepared to predict. His health is fine – "I am a great walking advertisement for an orthopaedic surgeon in Galway" – and he is already fizzing with more than enough ideas for a second book of speeches.

But he is, in this if in nothing else, presidentially cautious. “My concentration is on this term. Really, the reason I am not commenting on it is, what I am doing in this year, 2016, has been very important. What I am doing in 2017 and 2018 is equally important. But in the fullness of time, and at an appropriate time, I will decide what I have decided.”

Whatever he decides he will have left behind a remarkable public career that has kept open for others the belief that it is possible to stick to high ideals of possibility while living with the knowledge of what is, for you, impossible.

“I mean there are people who pursued their vision in so many different ways. And, however people want to interrogate their lives, they are not required to have it all right; they are only required to have operated decently and according to the lights as they saw it. You know? At different times I think you could take up a strident position of opposition; it is necessary. But it is actually equally challenging to be able to steer a way through the gap between what one had hoped for and what actually surrounds one.

“I like to quote Leonard Cohen, where you have to leave aside your perfect model and look at the bell that still rings and ring it. And that is still one of the most psychologically positive things, I think, for people.

“To live with some sense of serenity is to have at least tried to know and tried to act and tried to make the changes.

“And to be able to invite people to the discourse without arrogance or without excessive temper. I don’t know whether that is enough, but that is what the whole thing is about.”

When Ideas Matter: Speeches for an Ethical Republic is published by Head of Zeus